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PART 2: The 102 Best Modern Summer Blockbusters (#61-80)

July 28, 2020
Best Summer Blockbusters part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of our countdown of the 102 Best Modern Summer Blockbusters. The criteria? Released in the U.S. anytime after JURASSIC PARK (modern)… released from May through August (summer)… with a production budget of approximately $50-Million or more (expensive). That’s it! These are best summer movies money can buy, ranked according to their success (box office, crowd-pleasing ability, and other intangibles) and we hope you’ll find a little something for everyone on this list.

Click here to catch up on Part 1.

80. Insomnia

Release: May, 2002

Adjusted Budget: $66M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $96M

IMDb: 7.2

Meta: 78

Insomnia doesn’t resemble the other movies Christopher Nolan has made since 2002, and yet here it is – a summer blockbuster before such movies became Nolan’s calling card. This is the rare Nolan picture that he didn’t write himself or with his brother, instead tackling a script by Hillary Seitz. This adaptation of the Norwegian film of the same name is the story of an Alaskan murder investigation complicated by the town’s exposure to perpetual daylight. Al Pacino and Hilary Swank play the detectives, and Robin Williams plays the prime suspect. It’s a strong, stylish early effort from Nolan. The glossy thriller arrived at a sweet spot in Nolan’s career; following his surprise hit Memento, but preceding all of the baggage of his later work, namely that his films are now more or less expected to block out the sun upon arrival.

79. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Release: August, 2006

Adjusted Budget: $92M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $212M

IMDb: 6.6

Meta: 66

This one goes out to 8-pound, 6-ounce newborn infant Jesus. Talladega Nights is the first pairing of Will Ferrell of John C. Reilly, a duo that, along with director Adam McKay, perhaps unexpectedly came to dominate silver screen comedy for a few years. In addition to the buffoonery of its leads, Talladega Nights’ biggest asset has to be its eclectic cast, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, Michael Clarke Duncan, Leslie Bibb, Jane Lynch and Amy Adams. That would be an impressive group no matter the subject material. Whether you think of it more as a loving send-up or more of a barbed jab to the ribs of the NASCAR world, it’s just funny with its endless meme-ability and the cast’s dedication to pure madness.

78. The Mummy

Release: May, 1999

Adjusted Budget: $123M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $287M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 48

If you were of the right age when 1999’s The Mummy hit theaters, then this movie is probably a really big deal for you (guilty). Stephen Sommers’ take on the long-running mummy mythos was far from a critical darling, but proved to be a pretty substantial fan favorite and was the 6th-highest grossing film of 1999. Memorable turns by leads Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz probably had something to do with that. Like two sides of the riffing-on-Indiana Jones coin, Fraser was the swashbuckling action hero, and Weisz was the history-loving academic who could hold her own outside of the museum. The duo might have been worthy of a better overall movie, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t at least elevate The Mummy to a slightly higher plane.

77. 22 Jump Street

Release: June, 2014

Adjusted Budget: $54M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $209M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 71

As a March release, the 2012 precedent 21 Jump Street is not eligible for list, but it would have scored very similarly to its sequel if it were. Both films in this reboot saga are loaded with references to the source material and jokes lampooning the wider world teen and buddy cop films. 22 Jump Street ups the ante by graduating Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) from high school to college and giving them the chance to engage in Spring Break revelry as they doggedly attempt to crack the big case. Considering the premise teetering on the edge of not aging well, and the two much-too-old actors in the lead roles, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller deserve a lot of credit for finding just the right tone.

76. Die Hard With a Vengeance

Release: May, 1995

Adjusted Budget: $151M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $215M

IMDb: 7.6

Meta: 58

The third Die Hard feels like a significant departure from the earlier entries in the series. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is paired with Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson) in a sprawling attempt to thwart Hans Gruber’s brother Simon (Jeremy Irons). With a wider scope, Vengeance was a rebound for the series, outperforming Die Hard 2 in just about every way, even taking the crown as the highest grossing film of 1995. Though not totally successful with critics, this new direction for the franchise was largely welcomed by audiences. Willis, Jackson and Irons were praised for carrying the film and the renewed interest in the franchise enabled it to continue on for an additional two films (for better and worse).

75. Armageddon

Release: July, 1998

Adjusted Budget: $220M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $403M

IMDb: 6.7

Meta: 42

Of all the summer blockbusters, Armageddon is arguably “the most.” It’s also arguably peak-Michael Bay – his third feature after Bad Boys and The Rock. It broke the bank both in terms of production budget and eventual worldwide grosses. It thrilled audiences and bemused critics. Armageddon boasts a cast full of Oscar-worthy stars and revered character actors, and then requires them to deliver lines (often at high volume) such as, “this is turning into a surrealistic nightmare!” It’s patriotic to the point of jingoism, and precision-engineered to tug at your heart-strings. Armageddon was something of a high-water mark for 90s special effects, and 22-plus years later, it still holds up as an impressively mounted space flick. If you can reconcile the spectacle with calculated sentimentality, or you’re at least able to surrender your better judgment for two-and-a-half hours, then Armageddon is still quite the experience.

74. True Lies

Release: July, 1994

Adjusted Budget: $199M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $328M

IMDb: 7.2

Meta: 63

There are films on this list like Armageddon, Bad Boys II, and our next entry, True Lies, for which it’s possible to be blown away by the audacity and spectacle on the screen and then immediately feel embarrassed about liking it. Director James Cameron is certainly a more tasteful filmmaker than Michael Bay, but even he has distanced himself from his 1994 smash hit in recent years. That doesn’t change the fact that True Lies was a megahit, even garnering respectable notices from the critical community for its action sequences. If we can accept that it wasn’t widely considered scandalous back in 1994, there is still a lot to like about True Lies. Cameron and Schwarzenegger were at or near the tops of their games and the state of the art special effects made True Lies look like it had cracked the blockbuster code. There are parts of True Lies that are more difficult to enjoy in 2020, but you can’t really deny that it was one of the most successful summer movies of its era.

73. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

Release: June, 1999

Adjusted Budget: $51M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $380M

IMDb: 6.6

Meta: 59

Essentially a more ambitious and expensive reboot of 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, this sequel upped the ante in almost every way. Incorporating genre tropes such as time travel, cloning, cryogenic freezing, a moon base and other various nods to Bond villain excess, Spy Who Shagged Me is as indulgent as it gets, for better and worse. This paid off at the box office, though not quite as much with critics. It probably helped that the actual James Bond franchise was in a bit of a creative drought, giving Austin Powers credible claim to being the best spy franchise at the time. Iconic gags abound, and yet the sequel is plagued by a number of less tasteful moments that suggest a desperation to fill out its 95-minute runtime. Spy Who Shagged Me is definitely still a fun rewatch, even if it isn’t a big improvement over the original whose budget was so small that it didn’t even qualify for this list.

72. Stardust

Release: August, 2007

Adjusted Budget: $86M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $87M

IMDb: 7.6

Meta: 66

Stardust is one of the more modest movies on this list, but it’s a really fun fantasy story in the vein of the many notable 80s fantasies including Time Bandits and The Princess Bride. It’s pure throwback storytelling by director Matthew Vaughn, based on the Neil Gaiman novel. Stardust is a story of hidden parallel worlds, witches, and celestial beings beefed up with memorable supporting performances by the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. Despite some dark subject matter, Stardust mostly keeps the tone light and breezy. It found broad appreciation from audiences and critics, even if it didn’t reach the masses the way Lord of the Rings did a few years prior.

71. Signs

Release: August, 2002

Adjusted Budget: $103M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $368M

IMDb: 6.7

Meta: 59

With The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable already under his belt, the world was primed for the next suspense film from M. Night Shyamalan. Signs rode the hype and its straightforward premise to huge returns at the box office. By most measures, Signs was not quite the phenomenon as Shyamalan’s first two films, but there’s still a lot to like about it. Signs is hugely successful in wringing tension from its idyllic rural farm setting, with only a light sprinkling of special effects and sci-fi elements through most of the runtime. Regardless of the critical reception, Signs is the rare big-budget sci-fi film that can be enjoyed equally on a hot midsummer night and as part of a late-fall horror binge.

70. The Fifth Element

Release: May, 1997

Adjusted Budget: $149M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $103M

IMDb: 7.7

Meta: 52

The Fifth Element, Luc Besson’s lavish sci-fi vision made a big splash in 1997. Its galaxy-spanning storyline and integration of other alien species gives The Fifth Element a space opera vibe clearly indebted to Star Wars and other genre-mashing fantasy films. It was also a pretty sizable hit, doing decent business in the U.S., but really cleaning up internationally (clearing $300-million in adjusted dollars). Despite never getting overwhelming praise from critics, The Fifth Element’s continued popularity 23-plus years later proves that its fandom remains intense. Part of the devotion is owed to star turns by Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, not to mention Gary Oldman’s memorably whacky villain. Some of the wilder elements including the whimsical creature design, the niche-yet-lovable over-the-top characters (I’m looking at Chris Tucker), not to mention the actual opera might make this a tough sit for more some cinephiles, but Element brings the action, humor and a few unforgettable star (and supporting) performances that should be enough reel most viewers back in.

69. Cars

Release: June, 2006

Adjusted Budget: $153M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $359M

IMDb: 7.1

Meta: 73

The first Cars from 2006 gets the spot here, although you could probably make a case for any of the three. While geared toward kids more so than most Pixar offerings, Cars has proved to be a durable franchise, and remains reasonably rewatchable for adults. Cars is not as sophisticated as the best Pixar movies; it won’t break you down like Up or Coco, and it’s not quite as invigorating as The Incredibles. That said, Cars (and especially its sequels) is still beautifully animated, easy to watch, and gets a few straightforward laughs.

68. The Thomas Crown Affair

Release: August, 1999

Adjusted Budget: $74M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $107M

IMDb: 6.8

Meta: 72

A modest hit but even more of a fan favorite, The Thomas Crown Affair proves that sometimes the perfect summer movie (or quarantine movie for that matter) is one that spends a good portion of its budget to film outdoors on location. It’s a nice mix of movie stars (Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan in the middle of his 007 run), romance, and getting away with a well-executed art heist. Thomas Crown isn’t as intense as Die Hard but both movies benefited from the sure handed direction of action movie auteur John McTiernan. Like buddy cop movies, romantic crime movies are another staple of this list and The Thomas Crown Affair is a fine example of the latter.

67. Despicable Me

Release: July, 2010

Adjusted Budget: $81M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $305M

IMDb: 7.6

Meta: 72

With Steve Carell lending his vocal talents to Gru, the megalomaniac with a heart of gold, Despicable Me proved to be one of the most credible challengers to Pixar’s animation dominance in this century. This is also the film that introduced the world to Minions, the goofy gibberish-speaking blobs that are so popular they’ve spawned a spinoff franchise of their own. Needless to say, Despicable Me was a sizable hit at the box office and we well-liked by just about everybody. For the record, Despicable Me 2 actually scored similarly to the original, so if you happen to prefer that one, you can consider this spot belonging to the entire franchise.

66. Prometheus

Release: May, 2012

Adjusted Budget: $145M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $142M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 64

As a product of the Alien franchise, Prometheus inspires a wide range of responses. Some love it for its scope and what it adds to the Alien mythos; some loathe it for its lazy characterization and tendency to furnish more questions than answers. Whichever camp you’re in, Prometheus is a beautifully designed film, brought to life by Ridley Scott who returned to the world he helped create over thirty years prior. In addition to the overall look, the film’s strength probably lies in the star performances of Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron. The divided opinions of the fandom extend to the critics as well, as the mildly positive reviews highlight many of the same factors that polarized general audiences. To its undying credit, Prometheus is responsible for a certain C-section that stands as one of the grossest sequences in the history of recent blockbuster cinema.

65. The Nice Guys

Release: May, 2016

Adjusted Budget: $53M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $39M

IMDb: 7.4

Meta: 70

The Nice Guys is a treasure of dark humor, subverted genre tropes and charismatic performances, most notably from Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, but it’s first and foremost a Shane Black film. Shane Black is in rare company among screenwriters with legitimate name recognition and The Nice Guys feels like the writer-director indulging his interests in all the best ways. The Nice Guys is among the lowest-budgeted projects on this list and it was certainly not much of a hit, but this recent movie is already well on its way to cult-favorite status. It was the darling of many critics upon release, and it seems to have continued to make an impression as general audiences have caught up with it over the past few years.

64. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Release: May, 2019

Adjusted Budget: $75M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $171M

IMDb: 7.5

Meta: 73

Surprisingly, Parabellum was the first Wick film released in summer. In a franchise known for its stunt choreography and idiosyncratic worldbuilding, Parabellum considerably increases the ambition. The story world expands to make room for an underground society of Russian transplants, Moroccan elders, and still more layers of assassin bureaucracy. The imaginative fight scenes boast throwing knives, dogs and 7’4” NBA players. It’s a ludicrous and delightful entry in one of the more singular franchises we currently have, and continued the series’ winning streak both at the box office and with critics. It’s also another big win for director Chad Stahelski, who continues to find new ways to breathe life into the action movie genre.

63. Tarzan

Release: June, 1999

Adjusted Budget: $200M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $316M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 79

You probably know the Phil Collins songs by heart. The soundtrack alone is probably enough to make the Disney animated version of Tarzan one of the most popular animated movies of all time. Tarzan decisively dazzled critics and brought general audiences out en masse. It was instantly considered a new Disney classic and a high-water mark for animation. With a story that appeals to kids and adults, not to mention the crisp 88-minute runtime, Tarzan seems to find the sweet spot in a lot of different ways. Given the many takes on the source material over the years, it’s amazing that this movie wasn’t pegged for serialization. That’s not a complaint. 

62. Tropic Thunder

Release: August, 2008

Adjusted Budget: $110M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $133M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 71

Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of a pretentious actor portraying a black soldier definitely complicates Tropic Thunder’s legacy, but if we can compartmentalize that for a moment, this really is a mighty triumph of meta-action-comedy filmmaking. Tropic Thunder was a solid hit, earning well over $100 million domestically and pulling off three credible movies in one: a showbiz satire, a jungle warfare movie, and a brawny Rambo-esque shoot’em-up. Despite courting controversy on multiple fronts (disability advocates were also rankled) Tropic Thunder is one of the rare comedies (or noisy action moves for that matter) that pulled off a heady concept, earned serious critical consideration, and still managed to stick the landing for most audiences. Satire doesn’t always age well, and Tropic Thunder might continue to be a sore spot for some, but there’s no denying it succeeded in ways that your average summer blockbuster usually doesn’t.

61. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Release: July, 2008

Adjusted Budget: $101M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $91M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 78

Guillermo del Toro has always loved his monsters, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army marks another imaginative and monster-rich entry in his filmography. The first Hellboy was more of a gritty urban comic book adaptation, but The Golden Army changes things up by introducing a fantasy paracosm more in line with what del Toro accomplished in his previous film, Pan’s Labyrinth. While Golden Army was a modest success worldwide (and not quite so much in the U.S.), those who saw it tended to fall under its spell. It’s a unique film, both in design and tone. Del Toro’s ouvre is excessive in a lot of ways, that’s his style. In this way, you could consider The Golden Army to be peak-del Toro; a lively and indulgent masterpiece.

Part 3 is coming soon… thanks for reading.

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